Catholic schools promote positives of faith-based education
WEBSTER — Kerry Kiniorski and her husband, Mike Epstein, had never considered Catholic education for their children.
Then their daughter Abigail began to experience significant anxiety as a second-grader in a large public-school setting. After hearing positive buzz about St. Rita School in the family’s home town of Webster, Abigail and her parents visited the school in the middle of the 2012-13 school year.
“Everybody was so welcoming. They took their time with us; they made me feel like our questions were valued,” Kiniorski recalled.
Abigail enrolled at St. Rita within a week, adjusting quickly and positively to her new environment.
“We really watched her grow here,” her mother said, noting that Abigail since has gained strong leadership and public-speaking skills.
Mary Ellen Wagner, principal of St. Rita, acknowledged that public schools in her area offer strong academics but “because we have a smaller school community, we’re able to give the children a stronger sense of belonging.”
Abigail, who is now entering ninth grade at Our Lady of Mercy High School in Brighton, has been followed at St. Rita by all three of her siblings: Elliot, a fifth-grader; Isaiah, a third-grader, and Zoe, a first-grader.
Kiniorski, whose family attends Webster’s Holy Trinity Parish, remarked that the positive vibes they got during that initial visit more than six years ago are still evident.
“Everybody is smiling, everybody is happy. My husband is like, ‘How can these people be so happy? What’s in the water?’” laughed Kiniorski, an active volunteer at the school.
Success stories like this spark hope in Anthony S. Cook III, diocesan superintendent of schools, as he promotes the intangibles of a faith-based education while battling a decades-long trend of declining enrollment.
“We’re instilling Christian values and morals that students are going to have for a lifetime,” Cook said. “The value is definitely there.”
There are nine Catholic elementary schools in Monroe County and eight more spread over the diocese’s other 11 counties. In conjunction with the diocesan schools office, schools are governed by the parishes at which they’re located. The exception is Siena Catholic Academy, a Brighton middle school that is directly run by the diocese. Catholic high schools in the diocese, meanwhile, have long operated under independent governance.
In addition to the faith component, Cook pointed out several other benefits of Catholic education, starting with the fact that as of 2017, all diocesan schools are now accredited by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools. That organization’s rigorous 12-point accreditation process weighs such factors as facilities; educational programs; health and safety; governance and leadership; and plans for growth and development.
Cook also noted that proficiency scores in math and English have risen at diocesan Catholic schools since he became superintendent in 2013. The schools follow state-mandated curriculum standards and are on par with public schools in such areas as technology and services, he noted. Teacher quality ranks high as well; the diocese requires all of its teachers to be state certified. Many of those educators have logged lengthy tenures in Catholic-school settings, Cook said.
“Their careers are inspiring to me. It is truly a ministry for them,” he remarked.
“In Catholic schools you have very committed, very dedicated people. They are here because they want to be there,” added Wagner, who has spent 40 years as a teacher and administrator in this diocese. She is beginning her seventh year as principal of St. Rita.
Cook also observed that Bishop Salvatore R. Matano is a “huge” supporter of Catholic schools, regularly celebrating Mass for Catholic-school students and touring their classrooms afterward.
Yet Catholic schools can still be a tough sell in spite of their positive attributes.
According to Cook, overall 2018-19 enrollment at the 18 diocesan Catholic schools was 3,044 in prekindergarten through grade 8. This figure represents a nearly 95 percent drop from peak enrollment of 55,000 students in diocesan schools in 1959, when religious sisters were the vast majority of school faculty and tuition costs were low or nonexistent. Nowadays, Cook said, enrollment in diocesan schools has been declining at a rate of approximately 6.4 percent each year for the past five years.
“Unfortunately, we’ve continued to have some of the same trend that you see across the Northeast,” he said. According to National Catholic Educational Association statistics, enrollment in Catholic elementary and middle schools dropped by more than one-third between 2007-08 and 2017-18 (424,889 to 271,513) in the region encompassing New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey and Washington, D.C.
Cook said his office consistently seeks new ways — such as having an increased presence on social media — to promote the virtues of Catholic education. Recently, the schools added to their financial aid offerings a new incentive for current families to refer new families, earning a $500 tuition discount for themselves and for the new recruits. The initiative brought in 70 families and 129 new students during its debut year of 2018-19, Cook said.
Data from St. Rita School may indicate such promotional efforts are paying off. Wagner said enrollment at the school rose from 150 to 157 this past year, remarking that her school’s most effective marketing tool is its reputation in the community, as in the case of Abigail Epstein and family.
“Most of the time, when we ask, ‘How did you hear about us?’ it’s through word of mouth,” Wagner said.
Cook acknowledged that the cost of Catholic school education is “obviously” the biggest stumbling block for prospective families even if they are attracted to Catholic schools. The average per-student tuition rate for 2018-19 was $4,400 in Monroe County schools and $4,200 in the Finger Lakes and Southern Tier schools — figures that Cook said are rising 3 percent “at the most” in 2019-20. But he said the return on investment can prove invaluable, as students develop their faith for a lifetime while putting it into action through community service.
Wagner, meanwhile, asserted that Catholic and other faith-based schools are “needed now more than ever” in our society.
“I speak of this very often,” she said. “Our kids are bombarded with negative messages on music, TV and social media. I believe parents need all the assistance they can get to really guide their children through life. That’s what we hope to offer, letting them know we’re teaching the same values they would want their children to have.”
Kiniorski said the faith-based aspect of Catholic education is a chief reason she and her husband feel sending their children to St. Rita ranks as “the best decision we’ve ever made.”
“I just love it, going to Mass and watching all the kids pray together. That just gets me right here,” she said, placing her hand over her heart.